Setting vs World Building

I was following a bit of research down the rabbit hole that is the web when I stumbled up on a post by Janice Hardy. “The Difference Between Setting and World Building.” Curious, I started to read but these two paragraphs brought me up short:

Setting is the location in which a scene (or book) takes place. It contains all the information needed to understand what’s going on in that scene.

World building is where the story exists. It contains all the information needed to understand that world and why what happens there matters to the characters in that world.

Maybe this immediately made sense to you. I have to admit that I struggled with it for a bit. I can be like that. I just can’t see the forest for the trees. As I read and reread Hardy’s well written post, things finally clicked.

Setting is the narrow focus. World building is the big picture.

Let me explain.


Your scene may take place in a park. The setting is that park or portion of the park. You will detail what your character interacts with there. The bench she sits on. What she sees. The playground where her children play. Or where she plays!

How you describe the setting will depend on your character and what this character would notice. You aren’t going to spend time contemplating the material science behind the construction of the play set unless your character is a material engineer and it matters in the plot.

That’s a big one. It has to have a place in the story. It is just as bad to have settings that have no impact on the story as it is to have no setting at all.

Let that sink in for a moment. Your setting has to be integral to your story and your plot.

World Building

World building is the big picture. It involves the larger culture in which your story takes place. it also involves the larger geography.

Details of geography may not come into play in your story. It make take place in one city, neighborhood, or park. But you need to have some clue what the bigger picture looks like so that everything is as complex and rich as a real world.

It’s the same with the culture or cultures within your society. What are the norms? Who has power? Who does not? What is the ideal? This is what people say they believe or how things work. What is the real? This is what people actually believe and how things really work. For example, it is the difference between a society that says it is based on equality but in reality it has a caste system.

Like geography, you need to know more than appears on the page but what you include in the written manuscript needs to play a part in the story. It isn’t just a backdrop. It needs to impact how your character acts and what your character says as well as how different characters interact. It is complicated!

I’m not sure why it took so long for all of this to click into place for me, but it did. Hopefully my eventual realization will help you understand the differences.


Easter Eggs in Cozy Mysteries?

Photo by Breakingpic on

Recently I saw Robin Yeatman’s Writer’s Digest post easter eggs and started wondering about easter eggs in cozy mysteries. Sadly, most of what I found were cozy mysteries featuring Easter. Not those Easter Eggs!

If you aren’t sure what an easter egg is, they are little nuggets set into a book or movie as prizes for the reader. Frequently, they reference pop culture especially other works by the author or director. For example, Stephen Kings likes to plant references to his other books. For example, in Tommyknockers, one character refers to a dog that is behaving strangely as a Cujo and another character thinks he has hallucinated a clown looking out of the sewer.

I didn’t find much of anything referencing cozy mysteries so I went back and reread Yeatman’s article. One of the reasons that Yeatman includes for using easter eggs in your work is that readers will go back to see what more they can spot and it gives them a feeling of satisfaction to know that they’ve found them all. I have to admit that she is probably correct. My husband and I have a tendency to go back and look for them in movies. Hint: Do not watch Ready Player One unless you have a lot of time to rewind and rewatch. Yes, there are a lot of easter eggs in the book but the movie is chock full.

I’ve been playing around with the idea of including easter eggs in my cozy. I’m not going to include only one category of eggs but several including —

  1. Regional References. Although the story is set in the area in which I live, I am not using my city as the setting. I am creating a fictional suburban city so that I don’t have to stick to any one city’s history. But the name of my city is an easter egg. I plan to layer in more geographical easter eggs as I go. They won’t mean anything to the outsider, but people who live in this area recognize the names.
  2. Pop Culture. My story is set in the summer of 1969. My main character’s husband is a CCR fan. My main character? She prefers Henry Mancini. I’ll be sure to find out more about books, television, and movies.
  3. Aerospace. Why is my story set in 1969. The climax of the story coincides with the moon launch. Her husband works in the aerospace industry. The secret nature of many projects is going to play a part in the story. And I’m planting aerospace easter eggs as well especially as I name the company that is the main employer in the area as well as the CEO.

Something that Yeatman suggested was that an easter egg can also be a clue, foreshadowing what is to come in the character’s life. I don’t know that I’ve thought of any easter eggs that fill this role at least not yet.

I feel like I’m setting up an easter egg hunt for my readers. They question is – will anyone spot them all.


Pantser, Plantser or Plotter?

I have to admit that I really like this jokey chart. Take a minute to look it over. Where do you fall in the ways of writing alignments?

I’m something of a chaotic plotter. I plot. Vaguely.

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m chucking my mystery draft in the proverbial bin. Nah, I’m not going to bother actually deleting it. But I’m starting my project again from scratch. I just didn’t like it. Part of the problem is that I didn’t know enough about fiction to set things up correctly.

And by correctly, I mean correctly for me. I know that there are pantsers in the world. You don’t need a firm plan. But I do at least when I’m writing fiction. I think that a large part of that is my lack of confidence. I’m a fiction novice after all.

I’m really good at getting my story beats ala Save the Cat down. But my scenes?

I only recently realized that my problem was that I wasn’t listing scenes as much as I was listing beats of action. And that might work for you. If it does – yay! But it didn’t really work for me. I need to list legit scenes.

And now I have a much better feel for what a scene is and what it is not.

What I do know is that I like write my scenes in chronological order. Once I’ve done that, I can fiddle around with the narrative structure as I learned to do in the narrative structure class I took with Madeline Dyer.

But before I can fiddle with it, I need to get it written. Scene by scene.

I think I can, I think I can . . .

I’m still doing my research. Setting a mystery in the 1960s is making that essential. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read about the development of suburbia and the aerospace industry.


3 Things to Remember about POV

Point of view will affect how your reader sees the world of your story.

POV or point of view is the viewpoint from which your story is told. In first person, the narrator is the person telling the story and the person the story is about.

I spun the dial on my lock and struggled to remember the combination. I hadn’t used my own locker since Kara let me use hers. My hands shook at the thought of Kara.

Third person relates at a distance. The reader is watching Di’s story unfold.

Di spun the dial on her lock. “Why can’t I remember that combination? Stupid Kara for kicking me out of her locker. Di thought of Kara. Her hands shook.

Deep point of is third person up close. You get the character’s inner thoughts and emotions. But you don’t say “she thought” or “she wondered.” There’s no “her anger bubbled up.” It just bubbles.

Di spun the dial on her lock. Why can’t I remember that combination? Stupid Kara for kicking me out of her locker. Kara! Di’s hands shook.

Here are four things to remember about POV.

Avoid Head Hopping

Once you pick a point of view character, you stick with that character. You only relate information that this characters knows unless you have multiple POV characters. Whether you switch from chapter to chapter or stick with one character…

Utilize It in Describing Setting

Remember to acknowledge point of view in describing your setting. If your character has seen her mother’s living room drapes every day of her life, she isn’t likely to spend a lot of time describing them. Unless her brother used to hide behind these drapes and jump out at her. If she’s missing her brother’s antics, she might think about this when she enters the living room.

Beware Secrets

Especially when using first person point of view, it is hard to hide things from your reader that your character knows. I once read a book where the POV character was the missing person everyone was trying to find. Only at the end of the book was the disguised removed and TA DA! Yet, throughout the book, this character whom the reader knew by another name, had been thinking about the missing person as in “he wondered if the missing prince would be found in time.” That’s not it exactly but that sort of thing. When I found out that the POV character was the missing person. I finished the book but only read one or two more by the author. I didn’t trust her so I no longer enjoyed her books.

For more on Deep POV, check out this post by Alessandra Torres that started me thinking about POV.


Realistic Representations of Historical Characters

Monument to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Alton, Il. No changes made to original. Click to view. 

Earlier this week I read K.M. Weiland’s blog post on writing historical fiction. One of the things that Weiland discussed was creating characters that are true to their times.

As Weiland put it, “Things that seem abhorrent to us  now may have seemed holy to our ancestors, and things that would have shocked or shamed our ancestors may have now become some of our most treasured ideals.” 

This is something that my husband and I have discussed on more than one occasion as we watch a period drama with a remarkably diverse cast. Yes, yes, there would have been diversity across a city, but there would not have been the same level of diversity in the drawing room.

And if for some reason there was, it would have presented a truly unique situation. Someone would comment on it. Or give someone side-eye. Or freeze in their tracks. There would be a reaction!

This isn’t to say that everyone at any point in time thinks exactly the same thing. One of my favorite examples is Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837. That’s his monument up above. Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister. He was also a newspaper publisher. He denounced slavery from not only the pulpit but also in print. After his printing press was destroyed by an angry mob, he moved across the river from St. Louis to Alton, Illinois. During the fourth attack on his press, Lovejoy attempted to intervene and was murdered.

This is what makes writing historical fiction so tricky!

If all of your characters are trotting along, spouting the exact same beliefs and values, that’s group think. And it is generally false. Unless this is a Stepford situation. Read: brainwashed. Or dissenters may be in fear for their lives so they keep quiet.

But even your dissenters have to be a product of their times. As much as I respect Lovejoy for his stance on slavery, I’ve always been unwilling to learn too much about him, because he was, as are all people, a product of his times. Thus I’m sure he believed several dozen things that would seem, at best, ridiculous, and, at worst, hateful.

It is a tricky balance to achieve but when you do it you will create a rich landscape for your story.


When Your Antagonist Isn’t Human

The antagonist in your story isn’t always quite this obvious.
Photo by Miggy Rivera on

So many of the books on story assume that your point-of-view character is facing an external struggle against a human antagonist. These books are full of all kinds of advice on how to create the perfect villain for your character to face.

More often than not, I’m left shaking my head. That’s because so often my antagonist isn’t an old fashioned, mustache twirling villain. What then could my character be facing down?

Character vs Herself

When your character’s demons are inside her head, you are writing a character vs herself story. This could be about a character trying to overcome addiction or a character trying to overcome self doubt. Or maybe it is a character trying to overcome mental illness.

No, I’m not saying that mental illness is something to overcome. But what if your character doesn’t know that she has depression. Maybe it runs in her family but no one has ever been diagnosed. She has to recognize what she is dealing with before she can learn to fully work with it.

Character vs Nature

Your character would be battling nature in any number of ways. Let’s say that they are on holiday when changing weather patterns mean that hurricanes hit early. Whether or not your character knows about hurricanes, that is the antagonist they are facing. Blizzards, drought, sandstorms, earthquake and more can all become the antagonist in a character vs nature story.

And that’s not all. Jaws? That’s man vs nature. You could even argue that the gardener trying to keep the birds from eating their seed is a character vs nature story. Bears, gators, and rampaging locusts could all become antagonists in your tale.

Character vs Society

More often than not, when I don’t have a villain it is because my character is facing off against society. This could be a girl who wants to learn a profession at a time when girls didn’t work outside the home. Or it could be a guy who doesn’t want to go to war against the next town. Obligatory military service and more can show up in a person vs society story.

For a really good write up on the ins and outs of character vs society, check out Janice Hardy’s Fiction University post on that topic. Reading it is what got me thinking about all the times I don’t have an obvious antagonist in my stories.

Hmm. I wonder why not?


Different Types of Children’s Books

I realized that it’s been a while since I wrote about the different types of children’s books. Whether you are a brand new writer or a veteran, every once in a while you pick up a book and wonder, “What is this?”

Here are a few types of books that you might encounter out in the reading wild.

A board book.

Board Book

  • A book for toddlers.
  • Made of cardstock.
  • Able to hold up to rough handling.
  • Illustrations on every spread.
  • Often novelty books (cut outs, moving parts, etc.). When Our Seasons is opened, it look like and can be displayed as a globe.
  • Frequently deal with basic concepts.
A picture book

Picture Books

  • For children preschool through 8 years old. That said, a picture book is unlikely to appeal to both a 3 year-old and an 8 year-old. They have very different needs.
  • Fully illustrated.
  • Text and illustrations work together to tell the story.
  • Most often 32 pages long.
  • Meant to be read aloud thus the text may be too advanced for the young reader.
An early reader and one of my favorites.

Early/Beginning Readers

  • Fully illustrated but the illustrations do not expand on the story. Instead, illustrations enable the reader to decode the text.
  • For children just learning to read.
  • Text is easier than that of a picture book.
  • Smaller trim size than a picture book so that they look more “novel-sized,” like big kid books vs little kid books.
  • Employ a lot of repetition.
A chapter book.

Chapter Books

  • For those who are reading independently. Chapters and paragraphs are still often short but these readers do not need constant adult help.
  • Some black and white illustrations but no longer fully illustrated.
  • Not ready for something as long as a middle grade novel, but ready for something longer than an early reader.
  • No subplots.
A middle grade novel

Middle Grade Novels

  • For older grade school students. Remember kids read up.
  • Subplots are too be expected.
  • Books center on school and family.
  • Character is figuring out where they fit in the known world.
  • A lot of variety in length, content, and maturity but they are written for a wide variety of readers. Early middle grade novels are simpler and more innocent that older middle grade novels.
One of my favorite young adult novels.

Young Adult Novels

  • Novels for middle school-aged readers and high schoolers.
  • Not all young adult novels are sexy. There doesn’t have to be violence or swearing.
  • These readers are challenging norms.
  • They are daring to make a new place in the world for themselves.
  • They question the status quo.

Even knowing all of the above, it isn’t easy to categorize every book. But this will give you a head start.


Not All Stories Have a 3 Act Arc

Whether you are writing a novel-length manuscript or a picture book, your narrative has to have a pattern. The one we are most familiar with is your typical narrative arc. Not sure what I mean? Think of your three act structure.

Your action rises throughout Act 1 and continues to rise throughout Act 2. In Act 3, you story climaxes and then the action drops off. This is how most western stories are structured.

Four Act

Slightly different from the familiar three act structure is the four act structure. Remember that each new act sees your character making a decision or taking a path that is irreversible. There is absolutely no way that your character can return to what came before. This could be literal, the homestead has burned, or it could be figurative, the character sees the world in a whole new way. They have either changed too much emotionally or mentally or something else has changed so that home is no longer an option.

Here’s a drawing that I did of a 4 Act Structure.

Freytag’s Pyramid

In this older pattern, the climax to the story comes in the middle of the story. The climax may not be a big epic battle but it is the point where the conflict peaks and we know what is going to happen, more or less, to the main character. When a Shakespearean character chooses a bad path, it becomes obvious at the climax and then for the rest of the play we watch the character spiral downward. Here is what it looks like graphically.

In the first half of the play we watch the character struggle to reach a goal. The climax is where the character gets what he wants. Afterwards, the falling action is when the character meets his fate. This pattern is frequently used in tragedies. Think about Hamlet. That’s a Freytag’s Pyramid.

But these aren’t your only options.

  • In a SPIRAL the story consistently moves around a single point, coming closer and closer. The pace is consistent and smooth.
  • In CELLS the pieces all share a common theme but the organization isn’t necessarily chronological. Pieces are arranged to manage tension. A choose your own adventure is also arranged in cells.
  • WAVELETS see the tension raise and lower again and again like . . . wavelets.

There are also meanders, fractals, and explosions. I’ll be honest with you. I’m really bad at seeing these other patterns. Except for CELLS, the rest feel pretty random to me. But the good news is that you can read all about this in Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode. I’m definitely going to have to reread this book several times while also picking through the examples she uses. After focusing so much on three act structure, it can be difficult to even see the others, let alone to understand how they function. I can see Four Act and Freytag but that isn’t much to brag about.


Picture Book Scenes

When you draft a picture book, it is tempting to write out your manuscript like any other story. You double space the text. You have one-inch margins. And you write. Sure, you probably keep an eye on the wordcount. After all, picture books texts tend to be short. Only when you are done do you attempt to fit it into a dummy.

The problem is that any page of text can be cut into 14 chunks. I say 14 because this is the average number of scenes/spreads in a picture book.

For those of you who have never dummied a picture book, you probably know that a standard picture book is 32 pages long. But not all of these pages are story. Some include front matter like the title page and Library of Congress info. Other pages may include back matter like a glossary or an author’s note. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time here on dummies. You can check out how to dummy a book here where I discuss it in an earlier post.

Now back to scenes and picture book spreads.


A picture book consists of approximately 14 spreads. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, the number is approximate because some will be two page spreads and others will be one page spreads.

This is a two-page spread. Note: one illustration on 2 pages. I’m using Just Wild Enough by Marla Magellan because it was sitting here beside my desk.

This pair of pages holds 2 one-page spreads. Note: 2 independent illustrations on 2 pages.

Each of these spreads is a scene. A two-page spread is longer and more dramatic. A one-page spread can be shorter scene. It can offer an opportunity for an up-close look at something.

A one page spread vs two page spreads can help control pacing. A two-page spread amidst one-page spreads can slow things down. Including several one-spreads toward the end of a book full of two-page spreads can speed up the pacing. But there are other things to understand about scenes.

Each Scene Represents Something New

As with any new scene, each spread in a picture book represents something new. It may mean the introduction of a new setting, a new character, or a new action or activity as when Mireya takes up dance.

A new scene can also mean a new mood. The opening spread is high energy as Mireya hurries outside to enjoy the the animals in her life. On the first of the paired one-page spreads, she is more subdued. Yet we see her energy return on the spread that features dance.

For me, it helps to think about these spreads as I draft the picture book story. I need 14 or more scenes. As I plan out a new picture book, I think about what is in each scene. Is it essential to the story? If not, it has to go. Does it introduce something new? If not, is there a way to add something new? Is it tight and focused, truly representing a single scene? And do the scenes build one upon the other.

Picture books are deceptively simple looking but you need to understand the mechanics in order to write one. Look for these various elements as you read a stack of picture books from your local library.


The Shadow Behind the Story

What is the shadow story behind your story? The one just out of sight?
Photo by Pixabay on

Earlier this week, I read a post on Melissa Ostrom’s blog about the secret story behind the story. She explained that she read this in a review by novelist Gustavo Martin Garzo. Garzo wrote that in literature “there should always be a secret story behind the more obvious one, and that as you read, the other story unravels.”

A story behind a story. In my mind, I see it as a shadow.

It may be bold and somewhat obvious. Think about your favorite series. There is the plot of the individual book that you are reading. Then there is the overarching story behind the series. Perhaps it is a struggle of good vs evil. Maybe it is all about getting over a loss. Or finding your way when you don’t know who you are.

The thing is that it is not stated overtly. It is a subtle story.

If you don’t state it overtly, how do you state it. One way to do it would be through your themes. My husband and I are watching BBC’s Annika. Once I got over the fact that Annika speaks directly to the camera, I really enjoyed it.

In one episode, Annika is struggling with whether or not to tell her daughter that she is seeing someone. Annika is comfortable not discussing it. But he is a therapist and points out that this is an emotionally hazardous path. He doesn’t spend precious moments of the story saying why. He doesn’t mansplain or lecture. But as Annika unravels a murder case (she’s head of a police homicide unit), we learn that the victim kept secrets that killed other people, people he theoretically loved.

Sometimes the shadow story is backstory. It is the story of how the character came to be the mess that the reader meets on page one. Although the reader may never find out exactly what happened in the character’s past, enough clues are provided to hazard a guess. One way to hint at this past is through the character’s actions. Someone who doesn’t trust easily is going to question people’s motives. The questions they ask, or the things they investigate on social media, will provide clues as to what happened.

In my current read, the POV character is trying to learn to trust. Little by little we are learning why. Think about the book you are reading or the story you are writing. What is the story behind the story?